08 September 2006

Lost in Translation

Our trip to the Smithsonian and the Lewis & Clark exhibit was most interesting. Most of my exposure to Thomas Jefferson has been in his role as writer of the Declaration of Independence and participant in the Continental Congress. I've always admired the man but have not spent much time studying his role as our third president.

I've known for quite some time that the Lewis & Clark expedition was a federally funded exploration of the western half of the continent. I was unaware of how much it was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. How invested in it he was. He drove it forward and got the funding from Congress, even when Lewis & Clark blew through their anticipated budget by several hundred times.

Meriweather Lewis was the first on board with the project and he engaged in some subterfuge to bring George Clark in. It was engaging to read the early 19th century double-speak as they spun the project up and moved their base of operations out to St. Louis. Thomas Jefferson had not yet completed, nor even begun, the Louisiana Purchase. Once they passed out of modern day Ohio, they were on foreign soil; a foreign concept to us today.

They spent the winter of 1803 to 1804 in St. Louis hiring men and purchasing supplies for the expedition. Once word arrived that St. Louis was now an American city, planning began in earnest. They set out on the Missouri River in the spring of 1804 and late fall of 1804 found them in the territory of the Mandan Sioux Native Americans.

Early engagements with the Mandan Sioux did not go well. Lewis & Clark did not understand Native American gifting ritual. The Sioux took offense to their lack of response and to what was considered their ill-mannered response. I'm not clear from the exhibit about what turned the tide, but there was a key moment when Lewis & Clark were able to understand what was expected of them in the situation and began to act accordingly.

It was then that I read something that dropped a veil of sadness over me and I can't quite shake it. At some point in the negotiations, Lewis & Clark became aware that the Sioux responded positively to the terms "Great Father" and "children." This surprised them, but they were not averse to using them, especially because, as was the fashion of the times, they considered themselves more advanced and aculturated than the Sioux. To the Americans those terms meant very little, if anything. On the other hand, the Sioux and neighboring tribes had developed a highly sophisticated system of tribal adoption as one method of avoiding eternal war with their neighbors. To them, the terms "Great Father" and "children" were code or euphemisms which bespoke great meaning within that system of tribal adoption. Those terms meant something to the Sioux. They carried a weight of assumed responsibilities and rights. So the Sioux entered into agreements with the government based on assumptions about tribal adoption rituals that our government was unaware of (most likely).

It reminded me, once again, that when languages are translated from one mother tongue to another, even simple terms can be misunderstood. The consequences can be grave and long term. We are all still feeling the repercussions of those first negiotiations today.

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